The Last Mile for Digital Aviation

Christopher MacLuckie, Solution Director, A&D Aftermarket Services, SAP Labs, LLC
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Christopher MacLuckie, Solution Director, A&D Aftermarket Services, SAP Labs, LLC

Before talking about the “last mile,” we need a common understanding of our Digital Aviation vision. First, let’s think about what we want from Digital Aviation and then look at how to get there in the last mile. Flying combat missions in a Vietnam-era C-130E provides a good starting point for this discussion. In 2003, my US Air Force Reserve unit was tasked with providing airlift support in Afghanistan with our 1963 C-130E model aircraft. Although capable for the mission, a C-130E definitely lacks the creature comforts and flight deck automation of modern day aircraft. As a Flight Engineer, I found myself, on many occasions, having to respond to inflight emergencies with the help of the information contained in my flight bag. Unlike the modern electronic flight bag, our flight bag was literally a 40-pound leather bag full of technical publications. Don’t get me wrong, the US Air Force did an excellent job training us for the mission. We had all the information we needed to deal with complex inflight emergencies. The challenge was that the information was dispersed across different publications in the bag. So when you were flying NVG missions in the mountains of Afghanistan, quickly retrieving this information during an inflight emergency was a real challenge. Needless to say, situational awareness is quickly lost in this situation. In contrast, when the same inflight emergencies occur in the cockpit of a modern day aircraft, electronic flight bags automatically provide air crew with the information they need to diagnose and respond to the situation. With the click of a button, contextual information appears that directly relates to the system failure along with the applicable system schematics, limitations, troubleshooting guides and emergency procedures needed for resolution.

This flight bag comparison provides a compelling illustration of the real end game for Digital Aviation, in my opinion. Digital Aviation should do what electronic flight bags have done for aircrew over the years, but for other roles on the ground in Maintenance Control, Reliability and Safety departments, and on the flight line. At its core, Digital Aviation should offer the ability to provide the right information, to the right person, at the right time, even without them asking. In other words, act as an enabler for true decision support. It means automatically delivering all the relevant technical and policy-related information, so that the failure can be diagnosed and the remedy executed quickly.

“Now, it’s possible to go the last mile in the industry’s evolution by expanding the view of the “network” to include the business network”

The Power of a Business Network

The Internet of Things (IoT) is defined by Gartner, Inc. as a network of physical objects that contains embedded technology to communicate and interact with internal states or the external environment. While, IoT is not new for aviation, the ability to expand its application beyond the flight deck is. With the hardware, software and connectivity now in place, aviation has crossed the tipping point from a technology point of view. Now, it’s possible to go the last mile in the industry’s evolution by expanding the view of the “network” to include the business network. It’s this business network and the resulting new business models that will bring Digital Aviation to its full potential. Why? Because any piece of capital equipment is basically a system of systems. To realize the true value, these systems can no longer run in isolation. Just as operators don’t fly engines in isolation, so neither do the military nor airline operators want multiple, disconnected solutions for every system or subsystem installed across their mixed fleet of aircraft. Instead, the “last mile” for Digital Aviation requires a business network that aligns the service eco-system for the benefit of the operator.

The challenge is that current processes and systems used for support are typically very disconnected across the A&D ecosystem. Stakeholders traditionally rely on a model of “request/receive,” which is no longer efficient as equipment gets more complex. To progress to the next level of efficiency, large amounts of data needs to be continuously exchanged between regulatory authorities, operators, OEMs and service providers. A neutral business network is needed to bring together all stakeholders onto a common environment to facilitate collaboration across the ecosystem. A neutral third-party business network would enable standardized master data management, more collaborative service processes and an environment for delivering new innovative services.

Standardized Master Data Management- OEMs publish, Operators Consume

The network should enable OEMs to publish product data in a way that is easily consumed by operators and service providers. A critical component to Digital Aviation is visual processes. For example, OEMs should have the ability to publish their model data in 2D and/or 3D formats, so it can be reused across the ecosystem. Examples are visual work instructions tied directly to operational task lists and visual part ordering processes to speed the requisition process. Once published on the network, the ecosystem now has one place to go for information and a single version of the truth, saving time and money for the entire ecosystem.

Collaborative Service Processes - Operators Publish, OEMs Consume

OEMs and service providers also need better visibility into operational data to support the execution of service contracts and to drive product improvements. This is enabled by a flow of information about how the equipment is being used, where it is installed, what failures have occurred, FMEA from the operator and what service bulletins have been embodied thus far. The network should provide the platform for OEMs, service providers, and operators to collaborate around equipment design improvements, which will increase safety of flight, improve reliability and reduce lifecycle costs. Like the publishing of the equipment master data, access to this information would be controlled by means of a subscription-based approach.

Next Generation of Digital Services

As the business network enables the collection and access of more data across the ecosystem, exciting new applications become possible. Advanced algorithms will be able to predict equipment performance. With open and anonymized access to data, operators can now open up a competitive marketplace to solicit and compete for the most effective algorithms and analysis of their operational data. The business network could even provide a place where business partners can connect with other third parties to competitively source the best intelligence for their equipment. With a solid foundation of equipment information in the network, a new class of potential enterprise solutions becomes possible.

The creation of a “neutral” business network may be the missing piece in the Digital Aviation journey. Of course, there are many obstacles to overcome. The aviation industry has a long history and culture of not sharing information due to intellectual property rights and security concerns. Also, there is a never-ending debate around standardizing model, engineering and transactional data. The question is… what will get the entire A&D ecosystem pulling in the same direction? The vision outlined above is only achievable when we get a critical mass communicating in the same language on the same network. This is when the ecosystem comes together and acts as the force multiplier for value creation for operators. Now that the technology exists and the vision is laid out, it’s time to take the first step together on a journey down this last digital mile.

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